Black Voices in the Fashion Museum: Curating a Community-Participatory Research Project about Black Women’s Fashion and Style on a Predominantly White College Campus

The Iowa State University Textiles and Clothing Museum (TCM) provides ample opportunities for student involvement in collaborative research projects with faculty on campus. These research projects range from material culture analyses of single or multiple objects to learn about an object’s story and relationship to people and culture (Geismar, 2011) to curating an exhibition through an in-depth research and curation process.  As one of the current Agatha Huepenbecker Burnet Endowed Graduate Research Assistants for the TCM and second year MS student in Apparel, Merchandising, and Design, I, Dyese Matthews, am conducting research related to dress and appearance practices of Black women college students that are currently attending predominately white institutions in Iowa. My research will culminate in a fashion history exhibition in Spring 2020 in the Mary Alice Gallery that runs from February 3 to April 17. The research for the exhibition is also a part of my thesis; therefore, my thesis will have a component that is central to the land grant mission of educating the public, a core value that I also hold as a scholar, student, and future educator.

The purpose of my thesis and exhibition research is to analyze the role that fashion, style, and dress play in Black women’s lives at predominately white institutions and its relationship to their experiences with empowerment. I gained interest in this topic after learning more about the relationships between dress and identity after reading works by pioneering scholars such as Dr. Susan Kaiser in her book Fashion and Cultural Studies. I learned how people use dress to communicate their various identities as they move into different spaces (Goffman, 1965). After learning about the intersection of fashion and identity, I began to wonder about Black women’s experiences fashioning their styles at predominately white institutions, which led me to ask a research question about Black women’s use of dress as an expression of Black identity, activism, or empowerment. Working with Dr. Kelly Reddy-Best, Assistant Professor in Apparel, Merchandising, and Design, I developed a research question and am building my master’s thesis and corresponding exhibition in the TCM around this topic.

Because the museum lacked documented examples of Black women’s garments that express their Black identity, activism, and/or empowerment, I developed a research project where I am interviewing Black women across Iowa. I am collecting in-person interviews (Maxwell, 2013; Willig, 2013) where the conversations focus on specific garments and accessories that the Black women provide that they feel express their Black or activist identity. Doing interviews in this way to collect research is called a “wardrobe interview” (Woodward, 2007). The Black women who I interview then have the option to lend their clothing and accessories for the exhibition. This type of exhibition and history-making is one way to add Black voices into history and the institutions that, for so long have left them out of the picture.


My curated exhibition is titled Collegiate Fashion & Activism: Black Women’s Styles on the College Campus and will run from February 3 to April 17, 2020. The opening talk for the exhibition is scheduled for February 10, 2020 where I will discuss how Black women college students in the 21st century living in the Midwest in predominantly white spaces negotiate their Black identity, activism, and experiences of empowerment through their fashion, style, and dress. I will highlight my use of counter storytelling, a central tenet of Critical Race Theory, (Delgado & Stefanic, 2017; Goffman, 1965) to give Black women college students a voice in how they present their authentic selves on an everyday basis while fashioning their bodies. I hope to create a space for critical dialogue about race, fashion, and the college campus where for too long Black women have experience marginalization. I hope to empower Black women by writing them into history and giving them a space to see a reflection of themselves in a central and important space on campus: a history museum.


Figure 4. Official flyer for the museum exhibition titled Collegiate Fashion and Activism: Black Women’s Styles on the College Campus, curated by Dyese Matthews, Agatha Huepenbecker Burnet Endowed Graduate Research Assistant and Dr. Kelly Reddy-Best, Assistant Professor in Apparel, Merchandising and Design


Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2017).  Critical race theory: An introduction (3rd ed.). New York, NY: New York University Press.

Geismar, H. (2011). “Material culture studies” and other ways to theorize objects: A primer to a regional debate. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 53(1), 210-218.

Goffman, I. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

Kaiser, S. B. (2012). Fashion and cultural studies. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic.

Maxwell, J. A. (2013). Qualitative research design: An interactive approach (3rd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications.

Willig, C. (2013). Introducing qualitative research in psychology. (3rd ed.). Maidenhead: Open University Press

Woodward, S. (2007). Why women wear what they wear. Oxford: Berg Publishers.

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